(Editor’s note: The Blues were our pre-season pick to win the Stanley Cup and when it came time to put together our Playoff Preview edition late in the season, we saw no reason to change. Of course, then they went out and lost six in a row to close the regular season. Are we nervous our Cup pick could go out in the first round? That’s an understatement. But we still believe. And a big part of that belief comes from what Ryan Kennedy explored in his cover story for the Playoff Preview issue: the Blues have learned from their tough lessons. Here is that story.)
Since his star turn for team USA at the Sochi Olympics, T.J. Oshie hasn’t had much time to soak in life as a real American hero. Along with all the fame he got stateside for his shootout heroics against Russia, he welcomed his first child, Lyla Grace, into the world. “It’s been a little bit of an emotional roller coaster,” he says. “But all for the best, I guess besides leaving the Olympics with nothing to show for it. Having my baby girl was the best moment of my life, hands down.”
In the professional arena, there is one thing that could come close, of course: finally bringing a Stanley Cup to St. Louis, the only still-functioning franchise from the 1967 expansion cohort yet to win the title.
The St. Louis Blues played for the Cup in their first three years of existence thanks to an unbalanced NHL that had the expansion teams in one division and the Original Six in another. Despite the presence of future Hall of Famers such as Glenn Hall, Doug Harvey and Jacques Plante, the Blues were bludgeoned all three times, winning zero games in sweeps to Montreal (twice) and Boston. As the years went on, no manner of star power could get the team back to the final, and that includes vaunted names such as Brett Hull, Al MacInnis and even Wayne Gretzky.
But this year’s edition is built for the post-season. Coached by an historically successful tactician in Ken Hitchcock, the Blues are a sum-of-their-parts machine that blends a balanced scoring attack and a skilled D-corps with top-notch goaltending and a blitzing forecheck that bruises and sometimes demoralizes the enemy. “You don’t control the game with offense, you control it with checking,” Hitchcock says. “If you’re in the right position, you’re always going to get on the offense all the time. It doesn’t matter if you’re leading 5-4 or 1-0 going into the third, as long as you have the lead you’re in good shape. It feels comfortable when you know your team is checking, because they’re committed to the right things.”
And management is committed to the Cup cause. A team already featuring major Olympians Oshie, David Backes, Kevin Shattenkirk, Alexander Steen, Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester added another when Ryan Miller was procured from Buffalo before the trade deadline, along with character grinder Steve Ott. The Blues had good goaltending in Brian Elliott and the now-jettisoned Jaroslav Halak, but Miller gives them something more. “The way he carries himself and the way he handles high-pressure situations is contagious,” Hitchcock says. “His experience and Steve Ott’s experience, their maturity helps us a lot. That’s a big factor. We’re new to this game. We’re just getting involved when it comes to the playoffs, and those guys help a lot.”
Indeed, despite having a great core of talent in recent years, St. Louis has won just a single playoff series since the 2004-05 lockout. In the past two years, the Los Angeles Kings have put the dagger through the Blues’ hearts. Although painful, it was at least a lesson they could put to future use. “It’s tough,” Shattenkirk says. “Last year we felt we were there. We felt like we put in the effort needed to beat L.A. and it still wasn’t enough. Everyone talked about scoring more goals, and we’ve changed up our systems this year where we’ve activated our defensemen and gotten more scoring from the back end, but it’s all a matter of opportunity in the playoffs. We weren’t able to bury it at crucial times and really put teams away.”
California as a whole has been a horror show for the Blues. This season, they have just one victory in nine games against Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose, and thanks to the new playoff format it’s almost guaranteed St. Louis will have to go through one of those squads to get to the Cup. As physical as the Blues are, it’s tough to intimidate the likes of Joe Thornton, Anze Kopitar and Ryan Getzlaf. When St. Louis can’t rattle a team, winning becomes tougher. “The way we’re built suits how they play,” Shattenkirk says. “We’ve had poor starts in those games, going down by two or even three sometimes and when we play those teams there’s not much of a chance to come back and tie it up with how tight they play defensively. Playing simple hockey seems to go a long way against those teams.”
So the mission is difficult but not impossible. Simply put, the time for excuses has expired for St. Louis. This team has learned from past losses and brought in experienced playoff veterans such as Miller, Ott and Brenden Morrow. If they can’t seize Stanley, or at least play in a game when the trophy is in the building, they will share the crown of unfulfilled promise currently owned by the Sharks. With glory in mind, here’s a look at some of the key games the Blues have played in 2014 and what they took away from their efforts.
Sunday, March 23 – St. Louis 1, Pittsburgh 0
The second afternoon game of the weekend, after a 4-1 loss in Philadelphia, saw St. Louis walk into Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center and suck the wind out of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Backes was a stud for the Blues, deflecting a Steen point shot past Marc-Andre Fleury for the game’s only tally while hounding Crosby all game.
Although the Blues were outshot that afternoon, they managed to impose their will on Pittsburgh’s superstars for most of the game and formed a wall at the blueline, ceding the Penguins the neutral zone but stopping them cold after that. “When we’re playing well, that’s how things work out,” Bouwmeester says. “Our forwards work, and there’s a big emphasis on back pressure and numbers coming back so there are no odd-man rushes or easy entries into the zone.”
The big turning point came early in the second period with the game still scoreless. The Blues had taken two penalties late in the first and had to defend a 5-on-3 penalty kill on fresh ice. Backes, Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester played almost the entire stretch (with Steen briefly subbing for Backes in the middle), and Backes even teamed up with Oshie on a 2-on-1 once Oshie emerged from the penalty box. Backes then came all the way back to drill Malkin as Malkin entered the St. Louis zone before finally going off. “We were hard in the right areas,” Morrow says. “We weren’t as disciplined as we’d like to be – we gave them a lot of opportunities on the power play – but when we buckled down we kept the scoring chances to the outside, and our goaltenders have been playing really well. Just a real solid game.”
Brian Elliott got the shutout, and the Blues were rewarded one day after dropping a game against the Flyers in which they played well but didn’t get the intended result. “We bounced back well in Pittsburgh,” Miller says. “We had a good game in Philly, had the opportunity to put pucks in the net, and it just didn’t go there for us, so we’re right there where we need to be. We still have some things to dial in, but I’m sure a lot of teams are trying to gauge their game off the way our team comes in. Every game is a measuring stick, so you’re always expecting the best from the other team.”
Wednesday, March 19 – Chicago 4, St. Louis 0
The Blues had fared quite well against the defending Stanley Cup champions before this match, winning the previous three run-ins. But that all came to an end mid-March as Chicago thoroughly outplayed the Blues. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews seemed to have tons of time and space in the offensive zone, even though Toews was ultimately held off the scoresheet. “They were just faster everywhere and shooting more,” says rookie right winger Dmitrij Jaskin. “We have to learn from those games and then forget about them. “Sometimes the guys have good moves or they’re faster. Hopefully we’ll have more better days where we catch these superstars.”
The Blues were outshot and also outclassed in the faceoff circle. Nonetheless, it was game to learn from, especially since the divisional playoff format almost guarantees a Chicago-St. Louis tilt in the second round. Though physicality is a hallmark of the Blues, it didn’t help them against the Blackhawks on this occasion. “We chased contact too much,” Hitchcock says. “We got wrapped up in the emotion of the game and lost some of our structure. They took advantage. It was such a highly charged game. It was ‘Who is going to make the first mistake?’ And we made the first mistake. We hadn’t done that against Chicago all year and they made us pay. That’s the wrong team to not have a lead on or be tied with late. When you have to open it up they have too many players that can take advantage. It was a good lesson for all of us.”
The loss was also the first regulation setback for Miller, who had been on a wicked tear for the Blues since coming over in that big trade from Buffalo. Thanks in part to the lockout, unbalanced schedules and playing in the East, Miller hasn’t defeated the Hawks since 2007-08.
Friday, February 28 – Anaheim 1, St. Louis 0
The Blues did not beat the Ducks this season. To be fair, Anaheim didn’t do a lot of losing this season, but for St. Louis it represents that big, skilled white whale that doesn’t shy away from contact and won’t give up points to the Blues. In the final regular season meeting between the squads, the Blues got off to an inauspicious start when a turnover sprang Anaheim’s Andrew Cogliano less than four minutes into the game, resulting in the only goal. Jonas Hiller was great in the Ducks net, and when he didn’t make the saves the iron behind him did. But the Blues came out with their heads held high. “In the game of hockey, sometimes you get the bounces, sometimes you don’t,” says tough guy Ryan Reaves. “I went post-post-out right in front of the net, Jaden Schwartz hit the post. When you play a game like that, when you play physical, whether you win or not, you definitely take some positives out of it.”
The post-Olympic break showdown represented a turning point for the Blues, who had lost the previous game 1-0 to Vancouver. After the Anaheim game, St. Louis went down 2-0 to Phoenix before exploding for four goals in the third period to earn Miller his first victory in a Blues uniform. That effort was buoyed by their performance against the Ducks. “That’s the best game we’ve played against any California team at any time,” Hitchcock says. “That was the best hockey game we’ve played, I was really happy with the effort. I left that game thinking, ‘We can play against these guys.’ We did everything we wanted to do except score.”
Thursday, February 6 – St. Louis 3, Boston 2 (OT)
Should the Blues make it to the Cup final, their most likely opponent will be Pittsburgh or Boston. Based on the most recent tilt between the two, St. Louis would have no issue taking on the Bruins. “They play more like a Western team than most Eastern teams,” Reaves says. “They’re physical, they like to grind you down and wear you out. It’s something we’re used to. They play the same way we do, so it’s a good match-up for us. We did all the right things we needed to do to win.”
The game was so fun that the teams decided it should go on a little longer. The Blues held a 2-0 lead until midway through the third period when quick, strikes from David Krejci and Brad Marchand spun the game in an entirely new direction. St. Louis finally triumphed in overtime when Oshie stole the puck off Carl Soderberg behind the Bruins net and jammed it past Tuukka Rask.
True to nature, the Bruins were an aggravating team to play against, from Marchand getting in the St. Louis kitchen to Torey Krug starting trouble after the whistle. But the Blues managed to stay out of the box for the most part and got the win in the end. “That was two teams that were trying to supply each other with knockout punches,” Hitchcock says. “I don’t think either coach thought they were in control of anything. It was just a wild affair. For a low-scoring game there was a ton of scoring chances on both sides.”
Thursday, January 2 – St. Louis 5, Los Angeles 0
No team has bedeviled the Blues quite like Los Angeles, but at least for one night, St. Louis couldn’t miss. Los Angeles had lost four straight games coming into the game and star goalie Jonathan Quick was still on the shelf with a major groin strain, so the Kings were ripe for the picking. But the Blues were missing Backes and Steen to injury as well. Caveats aside, St. Louis played a typical rough-and-tumble game and bowled over the Kings – even tough L.A. youngster Kyle Clifford wasn’t immune to the abuse – for the team’s only victory over a California team this season. “That game was exactly how we have to play in the Western playoffs,” Reaves says. “It’s tight-checking, it’s really physical. When you can get after teams and run them out of your barn, that’s how you’re going to have to win series in the West, and that’s how you’re going to win the Cup.”
Hitchcock was obviously happy with the win, but he noted that without Quick in the other net the victory was tempered a bit, though at least one of the Blues was just glad to get the two points. “We’ll take it,” Bouwmeester says. “For us, we had a couple tough ones against San Jose and Anaheim and that one was a confidence boost. They’re a team you measure yourself against.”
But once the post-season starts, the rulers get put away and the heavy artillery comes out. The Blues had a definite shot at the Presidents’ Trophy, and even though there has been little overlap between the team with the most regular season points and the one that emerges with the Cup at the end recently, it has made the squad face the fact they are indeed the favorite, not a scrappy underdog. “It’s something that we’ve maybe struggled with at times, but we’re starting to relish that bulls-eye, knowing we’re going to get other teams’ ‘A’ games,” Backes says. Lately, we’ve decided we’re going to play our game and see if other teams can match it.”
It feels like St. Louis’ time. The city isn’t starved for championships, but that’s because baseball’s Cardinals have been the class of the National League, getting to the World Series four times in the past decade and winning it all twice. Shattenkirk wants to give the hockey diehards their own parade down Market Street. “Fans now, I think, want the Blues to win,” he says. “They’re more than happy when the Cardinals win, but now it’s time for the Blues to win a championship. They’re a very proud and supportive bunch, and we appreciate that and want to bring the Cup home.”
The road will be daunting, even for a team that has piled up the victories and trampled so many lesser opponents. But if the Blues can learn from the key games they have played lately – and win consistently against a team from the Golden State – then hockey glory will finally come to Missouri.